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The damaged vehicle in which World Central Kitchen workers were travelling when hit by an Israeli airstrike.
EPA-EFE/Mohammed Saber

Too many journalists and aid workers are being killed in Gaza despite rules that should keep them safe

“Deconfliction” is a term familiar to anyone involved in wars around the world. It’s an arrangement by which non-combatants, including aid workers and journalists, try to ensure their safety by informing warring parties of their movements to prevent themselves becoming targets.

We heard about deconfliction in the wake of the recent killing of seven humanitarian workers by the Israeli military. The organisation for which they were working, World Central Kitchen (WCK), insisted it had informed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of its workers’ route as they collected aid supplies to deliver to depots for distribution.

Tragically, due to what Israel has called a “grave mistake”, the convoy was hit and the seven humanitarian workers were killed in an airstrike that targeted vehicles bearing the WCK logo.

Read more: More than 200 aid workers have been killed in Gaza, making famine more likely

Deconfliction has clearly not been working well during Israel’s assault on Gaza. On April 2, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said 196 aid workers, including 175 from the UN, had been killed in Gaza. The New York Times has published a visual investigation describing six Israeli attacks on aid workers.

António Guterres talks of the number of aid workers killed in Gaza.

The concept of deconfliction – and its shortcomings – will be sadly familiar to journalists with experience of Middle East wars. I have been researching the safety of journalists since the early 2000s, when their deaths caused by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan became a regular occurrence.

Two decades ago, BBC journalist Nic Gowing, who went to Washington in an attempt to secure protection for media workers, wrote:

There is a growing fear that some governments – especially the most militarily sophisticated, like the US and Israel – are sanctioning the active targeting of journalists in war zones.

WCK’s founder, José Andrés, told an Israeli broadcaster that this was “a direct attack on clearly marked vehicles whose movements were known by everybody at the IDF”. Clearly, nothing has changed in two decades of conflict in the Middle East. But why not? Much of the news coverage of the WCK deaths has focused on why deconfliction hasn’t worked. Let’s examine the context.

Targeting journalists

The UN security council has promoted the deconfliction process to UN member states since 2016. It was instituted by the UN in 2018 to keep humanitarian workers in Yemen safe from attack by Saudi forces.

But there was already plenty of evidence that, for journalists at least, it offered little or no protection. When the US moved into Afghanistan in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, media organisations routinely used this approach. It often didn’t work. In November 2001, journalists were injured as US missiles hit both the BBC and Al Jazeera bureaus.

After interviewing a CIA official, US investigative journalist Ron Suskind told me: “My sources are clear that that was done on purpose, precisely to send a message to Al Jazeera, and essentially a message was sent… There was great anger at Al Jazeera.”

As US forces entered Baghdad in April 2003, Al Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub was killed by a US missile as he started a live broadcast from the roof of his bureau. The company had sent the Pentagon its coordinates and been assured the night before by the US State Department that the bureau “was safe and would not be targeted”.

Washington denied it had a responsibility to protect journalists, and warned news organisations that didn’t “embed” with the US military (putting their reporting under US control) that they would be at risk. BBC correspondent Kate Adie told an Irish broadcaster in early 2003 that US forces threatened to launch missiles at media transmitting from Baghdad.

A few hours after Ayoub’s death, two more journalists were killed when a US tank fired into the Palestine Hotel, which was housing the world’s media. An Army analyst would later reveal the hotel was on a target list, and her efforts to tell superiors that it was full of journalists (whose calls she’d been monitoring) had been rebuffed.

US servicemen stand in rubble in front of a Bghdad hotel that was hit by US fire in April 2003.
Targeted: the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, where media workers were staying, was struck by shells from a US tank in April 2003. EPA/Nabil Mounzer

My book about American attacks on the media traces the start of US willingness to use violence against civilian reporters to the targeting of Yugoslav communication infrastructure in 1997 – a means to control “the information space”. In 1999, the infrastructure targeted was Serbia’s public broadcaster, and Nato casually dismissed the deaths of 16 media personnel.

Israel’s track record

Well before the Gaza invasion, press freedom groups documented hundreds of attacks on media by the Israeli military. A BBC driver in Lebanon was killed by an Israeli shell in 2000, and a British coroner’s court found, in 2006, that documentary maker James Miller had been unlawfully killed by Israeli soldiers while working in Gaza.

A Reuters photographer was killed by an Israeli tank in Gaza in 2008, and in 2022, Palestinian-American Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh – despite reportedly wearing “press” identification – was killed in Jenin by Israeli soldiers, in what numerous investigations deemed a deliberate act.

Even though foreign media have been kept out of Gaza by Israel, many residents there work for the media or report to global audiences online. The International Federation of journalists has estimated that since the hostilities began, the death toll of civilians has included “at least 109 journalists and media workers, a mortality rate of over ten per cent – dramatically higher than any other occupational group”.

A month into the conflict, the leader of the local journalists’ union pleaded for support. He described how the family of Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh were killed. Another died as an ambulance trying to save him came under attack.

Sami Abu Salem talks about the danger of working as a journalist in Gaza.

Countries at war sometimes target civilians to “send messages” about the cost of challenging their narrative – and one Gaza journalist, Sami Abu Salem, has explained how persistent threats get in the way of reporting the situation there.

There are long-running campaigns to end the impunity of states who attack journalists, but humanitarian organisations need to be cautious to avoid antagonising militaries.

We must ask now if civilian organisations seeking to work in conflict zones need better protection than these ad-hoc deconfliction agreements – perhaps in the form of automatic sanction of combatants who break international humanitarian law.

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